One day Musonius Rufus, the first century Stoic who taught Epictetus, was having a conversation with his students, and someone asked whether he thought philosophical theory or practice was more effective, if one’s goal is to become a better person. He said:
Suppose that there are two physicians, one able to discourse very brilliantly about the art of medicine but having no experience in taking care of the sick, and the other quite incapable of speaking but experienced in treating his patients according to correct medical theory. Which one would you choose to attend you if you were ill? (V)
The answer to this rhetorical question is obvious. It is the practice, the results of what one does, that are of paramount importance, regardless of how articulately one may be able to speak about the subject matter. Musonius then gives another, similar example, asking his students to think about two sailors, one with a lot of experience navigating the waters, but unable to explain the principles of navigation. The second one being very eloquent, but with no actual experience on a boat. Once more, the choice is clear. Just in case his students were still not getting it, Musonius comes up with a third example, this time concerning two musicians. Now, how do we apply this to philosophy?
“Well, then,” said Musonius, “that being the case, in the matter of temperance and self-control, is it not much better to be self-controlled and temperate in all one’s actions than to be able to say what one ought to do?” (V)
However, Musonius also warns his students that theory is important. After all, it is the theory that drives the practice. It’s not important, therefore, to be able to speak about the theory — especially if one’s practice is lacking — but it is crucial to understand it, or one’s practice will certainly be lacking.
In his sixth lecture Musonius returns to the topic of theory and practice. He argues that doctors and musicians are guided by an understanding of theory, but that their knowledge becomes valuable only when accompanied by a long practice. And so:
How, indeed, could a person immediately become temperate if he only knew that one must not be overcome by pleasures, but was quite unpracticed in withstanding pleasures? (VI)
The same goes for the other three cardinal virtues. Justice means to love fairness, and its practice consists in actively avoiding selfish behaviors and greed. Courage means understanding that some things that other people think dreadful are not to be feared, but one needs to be exposed to setbacks in order to actually become courageous. And prudence, or practical wisdom, is the knowledge of what things are truly good or bad, which has to be accompanied by practicing indifference for those things that fall into neither category (like fame or wealth).
Musonius goes so far as to say that the practice of philosophy is more difficult than any other, including that of medicine. Why? Because when we begin to study medicine (or music, or whatever) we have few, if any, preconceived ideas about the subject matter, and so our minds are more open to learning. But in the case of philosophy, we grow up in a society that pushes us into all sorts of irrational or unvirtuous behaviors. So by the time we make the conscious choice of becoming “philosophers,” meaning to practice the art of living, we have a lot of damage to undo first.
How, exactly, do we train ourselves for the philosophical life? Here Musonius makes a suggestion that may surprise us moderns, but that was encapsulated in the ancient Latin motto: mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a health body). Musonius reminds us that body and mind are tightly connected, and that one affects the other. As philosophers, we need to take care of our body because the practice of virtue may be taxing and it is therefore facilitated by a healthy body. While he recognizes that some training is specifically tailored to the body and some to the mind, there are also exercises that affect both simultaneously:
We use the training common to both [body and mind] when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meager rations, hard beds, avoidance of pleasures, and patience under suffering. For by these things and others like them the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship, sturdy and ready for any task; the soul too is strengthened since it is trained for courage by patience under hardship and for self-control by abstinence from pleasures. (VI)
There is also, of course, philosophical training that is specifically aimed at the mind. For instance, Musonius says, we need to understand the logical arguments that show that some goods are only apparently so, and that some perceived evils are not really bad. We can then mindfully stop ourselves from going after goods that are not real (wealth, fame), as well as from avoiding evils that are actually not so (reversals of fortune).
As a reminder, in Stoicism the only things that are truly good or evil are, respectively, our own good or bad judgments, which Epictetus reminds us are entirely under our control. The sort of things people normally think of as good or evil are only preferred or dispreferred, meaning that we can certainly pursue or avoid them, so long as we do not do so at the expense of our character integrity. Here, then, is the common problem:
We dread death as the most extreme misfortune; we cling to life as the greatest blessing, and when we give away money we grieve as if we were injured, but upon receiving it we rejoice as if a benefit had been conferred. (VI)
Instead, we should think of life as an opportunity to be good to others; of death as an inevitable and natural phenomenon, which actually makes life itself possible; and of money as something that may have positive or negative instrumental value, depending on how we use it, that is, depending on our judgment.